[COMMENTARY] Children and Teenagers in Alabama Understand Mask-Wearing and Vaccines. But Their Parents Need to Catch Up.
I am a psychologist in Birmingham, Alabama and I specialize in work with children, teenagers, and their parents. Even during the chaos and turmoil of the past 18 months, my practice has thrived with new referrals. Pandemic-related issues are at the forefront of everyone’s minds—especially children. And, based on my experience, parents should listen to what their children are thinking and saying. And heed their insights.
Alabama is the second-worst vaccinated state in the country. Only 38% of Alabamians are vaccinated. Mask-wearing, too, is repudiated by a sizable many. As a staunchly Republican state, vaccinations and mitigation measures are downplayed by the vast majority of adults here. Many parents I see have not been vaccinated, and mask-wearing is not a compelling issue for them.
But that’s only half the story. Anecdotal evidence shows that many children think more realistically and proactively than their parents do.
Despite their pristine ages, children and teenagers seem to appreciate the deadliness of the coronavirus and the urgency to defeat it. They are mostly oblivious to politics and misinformation. They absorb truthful information from experts, media, teachers, and other available adults. Their cognitive and emotional understanding of our national crisis is surprisingly on target. This is especially true for older children and teenagers.
I have seen more than one hundred children, adolescents, and their parents since March 2020. Their differing statements to me are quite telling.
Mike, the father of two teenagers, told me this: “I think this virus is going away. I have a good immune system and so I don’t need the vaccine. And my kids are safe back in school.”
Shirley, the mother of a 12-year-old girl, said it plainly: “I want my daughter to breathe and speak freely at school so I’m against masks. And I don’t think we need the vaccine. My family is fine.”
Children and teenagers have a much different perspective.
Kelly is a 13-year-old girl who wishes her parents would “get with the program.” She told me: “I am wearing my mask at school because I want to be safe. All my friends are doing it. And I’m getting the shot once I change my parents’ minds.”
Steve, an 11-year-old, said the same thing: “I’m wearing my mask everywhere. My parents don’t. I know we all need the shots.”
Emma is a 16-year-old patient. She told me: “I’m old enough to make up my own mind. I need my mask to be healthy. I’m ready to get the shot if my parents will let me.”
Diane, an 18-year-old, said this forcefully: “My parents are part of the problem. They are making this virus last longer. And we could all get sick.”
Nick, a 12-year-old, said this: “I wish my parents would wise up. They’re pretty stuck in their ways. I’m worried about all of us.”
What I’ve come to realize is that the children—not their parents—have a powerful and convincing way of telling the truth about mask-wearing and vaccines. Their views are not tainted or jaded by confounding factors. They appear to know the real truth.
As such, parents need to listen to their children. Our youth are experts at separating correct information from distorted misinformation, mainly because they have little or no interest in extremist politics. Their natural kindness and empathy take over. They want their parents, friends, and all others to be smart about fending off the virus and maintaining their health. As a collective group, they are strongly in favor of mask-wearing and vaccinations. They understand the gravity of our existential crisis.
Parents should suspend their politics—at least for the moment—and talk with their children in an open and heartfelt manner.
Because they might just learn something that will save their lives.
About the Author
Dr. Alan D Blotcky is a clinical psychologist in private practice in Birmingham, Alabama.